Young Guns: go for fun, not historical accuracy

Set during an important frontier war, Christopher Cain's 1988 western is a rollicking ride with impressively authentic facial hair and rapping outlaws. But how did they make its colourful history so boring?

Director: Christopher Cain
Entertainment grade: B–
History grade: D+

Billy the Kid (also known by a number of aliases, most famously William H Bonney) was an outlaw on the American frontier, notable for his role in the Lincoln County war of 1878.


Terence Stamp and Emilio Estevez in Young Guns (1988)
Wild west Dumbledore and Harry Potter ... Terence Stamp and Emilio Estevez in Young Guns. Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

In the wild west, English expat John Tunstall (Terence Stamp) runs a finishing school for hoodlums, demanding proper table manners and teaching them to read. His charges include Billy the Kid (Emilio Estevez), Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland), José Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) and a whole load of other Brat Pack stars. But cackling local baddie Lawrence Murphy (Jack Palance) turns up to ruin their fun. He has Tunstall assassinated, and the hoodlums band together as the Regulators to seek revenge. It's not completely inaccurate, just exaggerated. Tunstall did have a gang of cowhands, though it's not clear he was their Dumbledore. In real life, there's no particular reason to think Tunstall was a more morally virtuous figure than Murphy: they were just two parties in a business war. And Murphy's partner, James Dolan – the man who probably ordered Tunstall's assassination – is nowhere to be seen.


The Regulators are deputised, giving their bloodthirsty campaign for vengeance a sheen of respectability. This is true, though the fact that the film is so black and white about the whole Tunstall-Murphy rivalry makes what was a fascinatingly complex situation boringly straightforward. Similarly, when Billy starts shooting large numbers of people through their heads in a breezy and cheerful fashion, you're supposed to take this as part of his raffish charm. Which is, of course, in line with the legend. It's a disappointingly twee portrait of a 19-year-old psychopath, though.


Scene from Young Guns (1988)
Horsing around ... Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

Though it has reduced its characters to cartoons, the film's design is impressively authentic. The outlaws look like outlaws – that is to say, a cross between Hawkwind and Baldrick. And while the heroes have generally escaped the worst excesses of tufty facial hair and rotten teeth, the fact that at least some of the characters are sporting these is a decent effort. Less can be said for the bizarre shoehorning-in of a romance between Doc Scurlock and Murphy's fictional Chinese sex slave, Yen Sun. In real life, Scurlock had been married to Maria Miguela Herrera for two years before the Lincoln County war. It seems he liked her: they had 10 children.


Young Guns does a generally enjoyable line in cheesy, quotable, tough-guy speak. "Regulators. Regulate any stealing of his property. And we're damn good, too. But you can't be any geek off the street. Gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean. Earn your keep." Nobody talks like that, apart from rappers, which is no doubt why it got sampled in Warren G's 1994 hit Regulate. But it would be lovely to think frontier outlaws really did blurt out stanzas complete with carefully thought-out assonance and metre, so we'll let it pass.


Emilio Estevez in Young Guns (1988)
Gunslinger ... Emilio Estevez in Young Guns. Photograph: Kobal Photograph: Kobal

Notorious bounty hunter Buckshot Roberts (Brian Keith) turns up for the famous gunfight at Blazer's Mills. So that you know he's evil, he is dressed like a giant, bedraggled grey duckling, in a fur coat made up of bits of chewed-up wolf. "He's killed more people than smallpox," gasps one Regulator. (In case you're wondering: definitely not a factually accurate claim.) The real Roberts did not try to hunt down the Regulators. In reality, he was trying to collect his dues and leave town when the Regulators ambushed him. He died the day after the showdown, from a gunshot wound to the stomach.


Don't let the convincing look of Young Guns fool you. Historically speaking, it's all over the place. And though it's good, solid, brainless fun, it's actually less colourful than the real story of the Lincoln County war.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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